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The American Water Spaniel: A Guide for Owners

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte. He has 15+ years of experience with dogs and various pets.

The American Water Spaniel: A Guide for Owners.

The American Water Spaniel: A Guide for Owners.

Throughout the world, there exists only a handful of dog breeds that can be consistently described as sensitive, playful, and eager-to-please. One of these dogs is the American Water Spaniel. Originally developed for the purpose of bird flushing and retrieving small game, this dog continues to fulfill this role in the modern-era and is a favorite for hunters and trappers alike. This work examines the American Water Spaniel and provides an in-depth analysis of the animal’s behavioral patterns, temperament, and general traits. This includes a discussion of the dog’s health concerns, grooming and exercise requirements, as well as water and nutritional needs. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and appreciation) of this remarkable breed will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

Dog Quote

“Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day.”

— John Grogan

Scientific Classification

  • Common Name: American Water Spaniel
  • Binomial Name: Canis Lupus Familiaris
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: Canis Lupus
  • Subspecies: Canis Lupus Familiaris
  • Other Name(s): N/A
Due to its natural tracking and retrieving abilities, the American Water Spaniel has been a favorite of hunters for the duration of its existence.

Due to its natural tracking and retrieving abilities, the American Water Spaniel has been a favorite of hunters for the duration of its existence.

History of the American Water Spaniel

  • Life Span: 10 to 12 years
  • Group: Sporting
  • Area of Origin: United States
  • Date of Origin: 1800s
  • Original Function: Bird Flushing; Retrieving
  • Family: Spaniel; Gundog

Origins

As its name implies, the American Water Spaniel was first developed in the United States during the mid-1800s. The breed was first designed by frontier settlers seeking an all-purpose dog capable of retrieving a variety of small game (such as birds and various rodents). As a midwestern breed, early breeders crossed a variety of dogs to meet the region’s harsh terrain and conditions. These dogs included the Old English Water Spaniel, the Curly-Coated Retriever, as well as the Irish Water Spaniel. The end result of their efforts was the American Water Spaniel that we know and love today; a “versatile, powerful, and sturdy” breed of medium stature (American Kennel Club, 50).

Despite its early origins (and popularity) within the United States, the American Water Spaniel (or “AWS” for short), wasn’t officially recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) until 1940. Since its inception, the American Water Spaniel has proven to be a favorite for hunters and trappers alike.

Function

The American Water Spaniel is a medium-sized breed first designed for the purpose of flushing and retrieving a wide array of game. As their name implies, they are excellent swimmers with coats that are both waterproof and resilient to colder climates. Combined with their intelligence and alert nature, the American Water Spaniel is a remarkable dog breed that excels in the realm of hunting and retrieving.

American Water Spaniel participating in a dog show.

American Water Spaniel participating in a dog show.

Appearance and Physical Characteristics

  • Weight: 30 to 45 pounds (male); 25 to 40 pounds (female)
  • Height: 15 to 18 inches (male and female)

The American Water Spaniel is a medium-sized breed reaching upwards of 18 inches tall, and weighing nearly 45 pounds at maturity (males). Bodies should be slightly longer than their overall height, and are accentuated by a well-muscled appearance that showcases their strength and agility.

Head

Heads on the American Water Spaniel are generally medium in size and should be proportionate to their overall body. Muzzles are moderately long, and follow a square-like appearance. Accentuating this region is a scissor-like bite, tight lips, and dark nose that is either brown or black. Completing the head is a series of medium-sized eyes that are slightly rounded, along with loose-hanging ears that sit just above the eye line. Eye color for this breed varies widely, but is typically yellowish-brown or hazel in coloration.

Forequarters

Forequarters on the American Water Spaniel showcase the dog’s muscular build, with shoulders that slope gently towards the back, as well pasterns that are well-toned. Legs should be medium in length, and follow a straight and well-boned appearance when viewed from the front. Completing the legs is a pair of medium-sized feet that are webbed and well-padded with toes that are closely grouped to one another. This feature aids the American Water Spaniel tremendously when swimming in deeper water.

Hindquarters

Hindquarters on the American Water Spaniel follow many of the same characteristics as the front. Hips and thighs should be well-muscled in appearance, with the hocks being slightly rounded. Likewise, the rear legs for this breed should be relatively straight and well-boned with the hocks running parallel to one another to the ground. Completing the rear legs is a series of medium-sized feet that are well-padded, webbed, and accentuated by close-fitting toes.

Tail

Tails on the American Water Spaniel are generally long in length, and follow a curved appearance. They are usually carried slightly below (or above) the back. Tails should be covered in fur and possess a great deal of feathering. Deviations to these standards are considered major faults that should be evaluated by a qualified veterinarian as soon as possible.

Coat and Coloration

Coats on the American Water Spaniel are either marcel (wavy) or curled, and vary significantly between each individual dog. Undercoats on this breed are generally quite dense, and provide the AWS with superior protection against weather, water, and the elements. Coats also vary in length across the dog’s body, with the throat, neck, and rear well-covered (and dense), whereas other areas are moderate in their overall density.

In regard to coloration, the American Water Spaniel generally comes in three colors. These include, chocolate, brown, or liver. In some dogs, white on the toes and chest is permissible for this breed.

Pictured above is an American Water Spaniel retrieving a duck for their owner.  The dog's coat is naturally waterproof, allowing this breed to swim with a particular gracefulness.

Pictured above is an American Water Spaniel retrieving a duck for their owner. The dog's coat is naturally waterproof, allowing this breed to swim with a particular gracefulness.

Are American Water Spaniels Right for Your Home?

General Characteristics

  • Energy Level: 4/5
  • Exercise Needs: 3/5
  • Playfulness: 4/5
  • Affection Towards Owners: 3/5
  • Friendliness Towards Other Animals: 2/5
  • Training Difficulty: 2/5
  • Grooming Level: 3/5

Note: Scale of 1 to 5 (1=Lowest, 5=Highest)

Temperament

The American Water Spaniel is a moderately energetic breed renowned for its sensitive nature. As its name implies, this breed loves the water, and is highly skilled at retrieving (when properly trained). Although their sensitive nature can result in shyness, the Water Spaniel often makes for a great family dog due to its playfulness and eagerness to please. Prospective owners should note, however, that the American Water Spaniel is prone to excessive barking, whining, and drooling. This breed is also quite wary of strangers (including both humans and animals). For this reason, owners should take extra care when introducing others to their Water Spaniel in order to avoid unpleasant encounters.

Is the American Water Spaniel Good With Children?

Yes! The American Water Spaniel is a great choice for families with children due to their gentle demeanor. They are also quite energetic and fun-loving, making them a perfect companion for kids of all ages. As with all dog breeds, however, owners should always supervise their children (especially younger kids) when in the presence of their American Water Spaniel. This helps to ensure that roughhousing and inappropriate behaviors (such as ear and tail pulling) do not occur. Kids should also be instructed at an early age to avoid approaching dogs that are sleeping or eating, and to never take their pet’s food away. Following these basic guidelines will go a long way in developing positive relationships between your pet and children.

How Smart is the American Water Spaniel?

The American Water Spaniel is an incredibly intelligent breed with a desire to learn new tricks and commands. They are also quite obedient and versatile, making them relatively easy to train. This is due, in part, to the dog’s high-level of “adaptive intelligence,” which provides them with a natural ability to learn from past mistakes, or from repetitions of an action. As a sensitive breed, they are also efficient at “reading” their owner’s facial expressions and body language. For these reasons, owners seeking an intelligent breed will not be disappointed with the American Water Spaniel.

Group of adorable American Water Spaniel puppies.

Group of adorable American Water Spaniel puppies.

Grooming and Exercise Needs

Grooming Requirements

As a double-coated breed, the American Water Spaniel requires regular grooming to maintain its natural curls and to prevent excessive matting. Experts generally recommend a weekly brushing to remove hair buildup, followed by baths on a monthly basis. Due to the natural oils that are present within their coat, however, the American Water Spaniel should only be bathed when they are extremely dirty (or smelly) as frequent baths tend to strip the coat of its natural oil.

As with all dog breeds, owners should also pay attention to their American Water Spaniel’s ears, nails, and dental hygiene. Ears should be checked daily for excessive dirt, earwax, and debris (such as the accumulation of hairs that result from regular shedding). Prompt removal of these substances will go a long way in preventing the onset of sores and infections within your pet’s ears. Likewise, nails should be kept clean, short, and trimmed on a regular basis. Failure to do so can result in painful tears to the nail, resulting in bleeding, pain to the feet, as well as infection (in serious cases). This is due to the fact that longer nails have a tendency to become “snagged” on various objects (and terrain) over time (PetHelpful.com).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, dental hygiene is also extremely important for the American Water Spaniel. In spite of its importance, however, dental hygiene is often one of the most neglected aspects of grooming. Owners should brush their dog’s teeth on a daily basis (ideally) to remove food-based substances, and tartar buildup. Failure to do so can result in painful cavities, tooth decay, bad breath, gum disease, and gingivitis over time (PetHelpful.com).

Exercise Requirements

The American Water Spaniel is considered a “country dog” that requires a great deal of exercise (and playtime) on a daily basis (dogtime.com). As a result, potential owners should be plan to devote an hour (each day) to exercise. This should include a variety of activities such as running, walking, swimming, and playtime (i.e. fetch). Failure to provide your American Water Spaniel with regular exercise will often result in destructive behaviors (such as chewing, excessive barking, and digging) as the dog attempts to entertain themselves.

How to Train an American Water Spaniel

In regard to training, it is vital for owners to stimulate their American Water Spaniel’s mind on a daily basis as well. This is due to the dog’s remarkable level of intelligence, and need for mentally stimulating activities. Training sessions can be incorporated into daily exercise routines in order to maximize results.

Due to the dog’s short attention span, most experts agree that short and “motivating” sessions are well-suited for this particular breed. When training, repetition is key, and can be augmented by reward-based incentives (such as doggy snacks). It is crucial to note, however, that the American Water Spaniel is exceptionally sensitive to their owner’s facial expressions and body language. As a result, screaming, yelling, and physical punishment should NEVER be used against this breed. Failure to heed this warning will result in the development of shyness and timid behavior in your American Water Spaniel (which is extremely difficult to correct once it begins).

Nutritional Needs

As with most breeds, high-quality dog food should always be the number one priority for your pet. These meals can be prepared by a manufacturer, or at home following the guidance and supervision of your dog’s veterinarian. Higher-quality ingredients are crucial for your American Water Spaniel’s development, and will go a long way in ensuring that they live happy (and healthy) lives.

Although it is tempting to provide your American Water Spaniel with table scraps and leftovers (as a cheap alternative to dog food), potential owners should note that human-based foods often contain substances that are extremely toxic to dogs. The following list details 10 specific foods that you should avoid giving your American Water Spaniel (or dogs in general):

List of foods you should avoid giving to the American Water Spaniel.

List of foods you should avoid giving to the American Water Spaniel.

How Much Food Should an American Water Spaniel Eat Per Day?

As with all dog breeds, feeding requirements vary significantly with every pet and depend greatly on your dog’s weight, energy level, and age. For this reason, owners should work actively with their veterinarian to establish a feeding cycle that fits their dog’s specific needs. Generally speaking, the American Water Spaniel requires approximately 1 to 1.5 cups of high-quality dog food (dry) on a daily basis. This should, in turn, be divided into two separate meals of 0.5 to 0.75 cups, respectively. These measurements are only guidelines though, and don’t necessarily represent all dogs. For example, more-active spaniels will require additional food to replenish calories lost throughout the day. In contrast, less-active dogs will require slightly less. For these reasons, it is vital that owners work closely with their veterinarian to determine a proper feeding schedule that works for their pet.

Water Needs

Maintaining proper hydration is also extremely important for the American Water Spaniel. Nearly 70-percent of a dog’s body is comprised of water. Therefore, owners should pay active attention to their dog’s water needs throughout the day as their requirements can change in response to both outside temperatures and their daily activity levels. As with most breeds, standard water requirements are usually determined by your dog’s weight. For every seven pounds of weight, an American Water Spaniel should consume approximately 6 ounces of water per day. For example, a 42-pound dog would require 36 ounces of water in a day’s time. More-active dogs will require additional water (in the vicinity of 51 to 69 ounces), whereas less-active pets will require the minimum standard outlined above.

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in the American Water Spaniel.

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in the American Water Spaniel.

What Type of Home is Good for an American Water Spaniel?

Deciding to adopt an American Water Spaniel is an extremely important life-decision that should not be taken lightly. Potential owners should note that this is a highly-energetic breed that requires regular exercise and mental stimulation from their owner on a daily basis. As a result, owners that are extremely busy (with work or other life-commitments) are generally not recommended for this breed.

In addition, the American Water Spaniel is truly a “country dog” at heart due to its original function as a hunting companion. As a result, urban-based dwellings such as apartments, condominiums, and townhomes are not well-suited for this particular breed. While potential owners can certainly take steps to provide their American Water Spaniel with exercise in these environments (such as additional exercise), maintaining this type of lifestyle is often extremely difficult in the long-term. As such, country-based homes with large fenced-in yards are best-suited for the American Water Spaniel’s natural desire to run and play outdoors.

Are Water Spaniels Good With Other Pets?

Yes and no. For the most part, the American Water Spaniel does well with dogs and cats inside the home, with the assumption that early socialization with these animals was undertaken. Due to the dog’s natural hunting instinct, however, it is vital that owners closely monitor their American Water Spaniel around animals to deter bad behaviors from developing. Likewise, smaller animals (such as gerbils, hamsters, and birds) should be kept away from the AWS to prevent serious injuries from occurring.

Finally, and crucially, potential owners should note that the AWS can be extremely territorial and aggressive toward strange dogs. As a result, they should always be monitored closely when outdoors, or when meeting other animals for the first time.

Are American Water Spaniels Good Guard Dogs?

Yes and no. The American Water Spaniel is keenly aware of their surroundings, and will instinctively alert their owners to strange sounds, smells, or approaching strangers. They are also quite wary of newcomers (despite their relatively friendly disposition). This stems from the dog’s natural territorial instincts, and innate desire to protect their family from harm. Nevertheless, the American Water Spaniel was never intended for a “guard dog” role by breeders. As such, individuals seeking a dog for protection will likely be better-served by a stronger breed such as the Rottweiler, Doberman Pinscher, or German Shepherd.

Adorable American Water Spaniel puppy.

Adorable American Water Spaniel puppy.

Puppy Selection

How to Select an American Water Spaniel Puppy

As mentioned above, deciding to adopt an American Water Spaniel is a major life-decision that should never be taken lightly. This also applies to the selection of puppies, as great care should be taken when adopting a new dog from a breeder. When examining litters, potential owners should evaluate American Water Spaniel puppies with several things in mind. In regard to characteristics, try looking for a puppy that has a full (dense) coat, good bite, as well as “strong muscle and bone” in their overall appearance (American Kennel Club, 51). American Water Spaniel puppies should also be outgoing and curious (by nature), with shyness and timid behaviors being major defects for this breed. By 8 weeks old, puppies should also be demonstrating a natural proclivity towards retrieving various objects.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, always ask breeders for health clearances which helps prove that each puppy has been cleared for various health conditions. Not only does this ensure that you are getting a healthy puppy, but it also helps prove that the seller is a responsible breeder who cares for the health and safety of their animals.

Health Concerns

Recommended Medical Tests and Evaluations for the American Water Spaniel:

  • Hip and Elbow Examination
  • Allergy Test
  • Cardiac Exam
  • Eye Exam

Owners should actively work with a qualified veterinarian in their area to develop a nutritional and preventive-care plan for their American Water Spaniel. Proper diet, nutrition, and early detection of health issues can go a long way in helping your dog achieve a happy and healthy life. Generally speaking, the AWS is a relatively healthy breed with only a few health concerns. This includes a propensity for various allergies, cataracts, degenerative myelopathy, hip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, as well as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). Heart issues are also common complaints for this breed, and should be tested for regularly by veterinarians.

With proper care, owners can expect their American Water Spaniel to live between 10 to 12 years, though it is common for this breed to live several years beyond this.

Signs and symptoms of illness in the American Water Spaniel.

Signs and symptoms of illness in the American Water Spaniel.

Pros and Cons of the American Water Spaniel

Pros:

  • Highly-trainable breed with an eagerness to learn and please.
  • Great for “watch dog” purposes.
  • Minimal shedding.
  • Child-friendly breed with an extremely playful personality.
  • Extremely adaptable to a wide array of situations and environments.

Cons:

  • Possesses a strong “wanderlust” potential, and desire to explore.
  • Suffers from “separation anxiety” when left alone for long periods of time.
  • Requires a great deal of exercise on a daily basis.
  • Their coat is not hypoallergenic, resulting in issues for allergy sufferers.
  • Tendency to chew and bark excessively.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, the American Water Spaniel is a wonderful dog breed renowned for their playfulness, intelligence, and devotion towards owners. Although this breed is known to exhibit a great deal of stubbornness, as well as a natural wariness towards strange dogs and individuals, these issues are pale in comparison to their positive attributes. As a result, owners seeking a companion for themselves (or family members), will be hard-pressed to find another breed as loving and devoted as the American Water Spaniel. For these reasons, the AWS will likely remain a favorite of dog lovers for the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Articles:

  • American Kennel Club. The New Complete Dog Book 22nd Edition. Mount Joy, Pennsylvania: Fox Chapel Publishing, 2017.
  • Coile, Caroline. The Dog Breed Bible: Descriptions and Photos of Every Breed Recognized by the AKC. Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
  • Dennis-Bryan, Kim. The Complete Dog Breed Book. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2014.
  • Larkin, Peter and Mike Stockman. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Dogs, Dog Breeds, & Dog Care. London, England: Hermes House, 2006.
  • Mehus-Roe, Kristin. Dog Bible: The Definitive Source for All Things Dog. Irvine, California: I-5 Press, 2009.
  • O’Neill, Amanda. What Dog? A Guide to Help New Owners Select the Right Breed for their Lifestyle. Hauppauge, New York: Interpret Publishing Ltd., 2006.
  • Schuler, Elizabeth Meriwether. Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Dogs. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Incorporated, 1980.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Smartest Dog Breeds.” (PetHelpful). 2019.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The 10 Best Dogs for Children.” (PetHelpful). 2019.

Images:

Wikimedia Commons

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Larry Slawson

Comments

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 25, 2020:

This is a beautiful dog. You have provided every bit of information for this breed that anyone would need to own an American Water Spaniel. Great article, Larry.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on September 25, 2020:

Thank you, Cheryl! They are definitely adorable. I want an American Water Spaniel now haha.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on September 24, 2020:

What an adorable species. The puppies in the wagon stole my heart. Thank you I had never heard of this breed before.